Beekeepers, Reduce Smoking in Honey Bee Colonies. A smoker is considered to be an essential piece of equipment for the beekeeper, comprising a metal canister with a funnel-shaped top and bellows. The canister is filled with a fuel such as dead or rotting wood. On top of the fuel, leaves or grass are added to reduce the heat, to protect the bees and to produce a large amount of smoke. A beekeeper should always have a smoker with them when inspecting a hive as a means of controlling the bees and preventing them becoming a nuisance to others, this is particularly important if the hive is in an urban setting.
On approaching the hive the beekeeper puffs smoke from the smoker into the entrance and underneath the hive, allowing time for it to drift up through the colony before taking off the roof. The traditional take on the use of smoke is that it calms the bees and therefore makes it easier to manipulate the hive and of course remove the honey. It has been used for this purpose since ancient times.
The smoke interferes with the pheromones the bees use to communicate with each other and co-ordinate an attack against a potential threat to the colony. It is also said to trigger an instinct in the bees that makes them believe that there is a forest fire which causes them to start eating their honey stores in preparation for leaving the hive. They store the honey in their honey stomachs and regurgitate it later when they feel the danger has gone. When a bee consumes honey its abdomen distends, thereby making it difficult for it to make the necessary flexes to sting.
Beekeepers must try to take a more natural and gentler approach
The common beekeeper’s notion that the smoke calms the bees is somewhat questionable, as how many of us would remain calm if we discovered smoke drifting through our home. Indeed that is exactly how the bees are reacting and just as we might dash to save our treasured possessions, they rush to their vital honey stores.
If you consider that it is seen as good beekeeping practice to inspect a hive as often as every week in the peak summer season, imagine how much disruption and stress is being inflicted on the bees. In fact it is believed that it can take up to 48 hours for a hive to recover from a beekeeper’s full inspection, becoming clear of the smell of smoke so that the normal scents and pheromones can circulate and enable the colony to function collectively again. In addition the honey and nectar stores need to be reinstated.
I am not advocating that we all throw away our smokers, indeed you should always have a lit one nearby when looking at your hives in case of problems. In particular if you are stung you should smoke the area of the sting to prevent the pheromones released from causing other bees to be alerted and inflict further stings. However be sparing with the smoke, instead of puffing large amounts onto the frames to get the bees to move out of the way, try gently brushing them off. Another option is to spray a very fine mist of clean water onto them, but not enough to make the hive damp,especially if it is not a warm day.
Beekeepers should always try to inspect hives on a good day, preferably between 10 a.m and 3 p.m. There will be more foragers out in the field and therefore less bees to control and also the absent bees will not be able to panic and gorge themselves on the honey stores. You will also find the remaining bees inside the hive will be in a more agreeable mood on a warm sunny day.
If you handle the hive gently with slow but confident movements the bees will also stay calmer. Bees cannot hear but are very susceptible to vibration, so banging frames and boxes will get a reaction. Know your bees, most are quite gentle but if you have an aggressive colony do not put up with it, consider changing the queen as this usually sorts the problem out.
Beekeepers should consider if possible doing internal inspections less often. You can often tell from the outside if all is well with the colony, for example if there is lots of pollen being brought back to the hive, this indicates that the queen has been present and laying eggs in the last few days. Although swarming is a problem at the height of the season, if you have a new colony with lots of free space the chances of swarming are minimal from one week to another, so you can probably get away with extending your inspection interval.
Finally try to avoid burning anything that is likely to have toxins in it, organic matter such as rotting wood is best. Avoid cardboard as most of the heavier types are now coated with flame retardants, the fumes from which are toxic.
Article by Maggie Roberts. Maggie Roberts is a professional writer and beekeeper, with a particular passion for sharing her knowledge of bees and their role in the natural world. If you would like more information, help to start beekeeping or just to learn more about bees, then see